Sermon prepared by Rev. John Koole of Strathroy, Ont.
"You mean you can remember that?" "Sure! I go back a long way, you know." Have you ever heard people talk like that? "I go back a long ways." That's grandparents' language. Many older folklike to reminisce about days long past, and some of us like to read about how things were long ago.
The Dutch author Anne De Vries once wrote a novel about a little boy in the province of Drente named Bartje. The book became so popular they put up a statue of Bartje. Through the eyes of this little fellow, De Vries presents the grim poverty many endured in the early years of the 2Oth century in rural Netherlands. It is a story that brings back memories to those who know something of those long ago days of hardship and large families, days experienced not only in Europe of course, but in North America as well. It is not so very long ago, but those days of hardship seem very far away today.
Do you remember when you had to take your car in for a grease job? What a pain!
But if you neglected it you'd have trouble. Nowadays the grease is sealed in. Do you remember your last flat tire? They used to occur a lot more often, sometimes several times in one day. You had to have your pump and patch kit ready when you took your date for a spin in the 1920's. You rolled up your white shirt sleeves and went to work.
Those are the cars you had to start with a crank in the front, then race back into the car and regulate the gas lever on the steering wheel. You scrubbed clothes on washboards, dug coal out of the bin for the furnace and took the ashes out to the drive way to give traction in the snow.
Things were not so easy then, were they? Grandma and grandpa may like to share memories, but they are thankful they have been delivered from cranking cars, scrubbing laundry on boards, and sifting ashes. Younger folk may not think about it often, but they too have been released from that drudgery of yesteryear. How? Simply by being born today! We have been released from being forced to leave school to go to work in the fields at 10 or 12 years old, or in a noisy textile factory, working 10 hours a day six days a week. Being born later, we can go to college, traverse the country in a matter of hours, communicate with family and friends all over the world in an instant.
It is painful to read of little Bartje's family's grinding poverty between the wars in the Netherlands. What burdens have been removed in a hundred years or so! How splendid our lives are now that we have been released from so much poverty and drudgery!
Paul is talking of something like that release in his letter to the Christians in Colossae. He was a lot closer to the end of drudgery than we are, for the release of which he speaks is not a gradual improvement in our lives, but a sudden one — our dying to the old slavery in the death of Christ and our rising to a new freedom with the resurrection of our Lord Jesus. Paul was far closer to that event than we, and close too to his own personal experience of that release in coming to faith in Jesus. And he can get pretty excited about his rescue.
But even though that release came a long, long time ago for us, it is well for us to note that it did come also for us, though before we were born. It came for us just as much as it came for Paul and the Colossians. We do well to catch some of the excitement. For Paul it was the release from the Jew's religious straightjacket, from the law of Moses and its later accretions, line upon line, do this do that. For the Colossians it was release from Pagan anxieties, fear this, watch for that. What a burden has been lifted from mankind through Jesus' death and resurrection.
Paul is not talking so much of release from guilt, the debt of sin here, as he is of religious drudgery, the spiritual side of cranking up the motor, listening to every clink in the works, wondering when another tire will go. We are released from the weariness of worrying about the law day in day out: should I have touched that, eaten that, used that tool? Have I angered the storm clouds, forgotten to show respect to the tree in my yard,? or am I about to be put under a curse by my neighbor? Are all my sacrifices in place, my vows fulfilled? Have I remembered what I have to do today to escape catastrophe?
It is a long time ago that a man died and rose again from the grave, but it is nevertheless the time everything in your life and mine became different, new, better. That is what we celebrate in our Sunday worship and in our whole way of life. Then our release from the world of death came. I have been there and done that, dying; then our release to enjoying life, true life, came.Now my life is filled with opportunities unimaginable to people of long ago, for life is here for me forever, life from my risen Lord.
I go his way of course, up to God, but Paul asks us to look at it differently. It comes our way, what is above, true life. You cannot see it, nor can others, but you have life right now; and because of where your life is, it is simply impossible to lose it. It is in heaven with its source, and Jesus will take it this way when he comes again. Wonderful release from timidity, anxiety, groping our way; release to confident living in the openness and freedom that is life with God.
It is strange that God should speak to us through letters meant for a particular community of long ago. You have to guess the other side of the conversation. It is like listening to someone talking on the phone. But it makes for a more interesting presentation of the truth, filled with personal notes and personal excitement. Paul worried about folk in Galatia being led astray. He worries as well about someone taking in the new Christians of Colossae. We are not sure precisely what he fears; maybe it is simply orthodox Jewish religion. His scorn of human tradition parallels Jesus' words on the traditions of men in Mark 7. There too Isaiah 29 is quoted, a passage that lies back of this too. "They worship me with rules taught by men. Washing hands is what they talk of when evil filth oozes out of their hearts."
Whatever the other side taught, Paul's point is again that Jews or maybe pagan priests and teachers may come at us with their rules to keep, their special days and taboos, special diets, but in Christ we get all we can possibly ever hope to get! He has it all. There is nothing more to trick life into giving us. He is fullness and so we have it all: we're alive, nourished with his life from above. Don't go back to spending your days trying to put your world together. It won't come together. It breaks; it decays; it perishes. But the church lives in Christ.
That death and resurrection of long ago not only speaks of our forgiveness and reconciliation. It opens up a whole new kind of heaven-filled life for those made right with God through Christ. The old struggle at getting our religion right, any kind of cranking earth's motor to attain heaven's ride — it is over. That ride we know now is our own through the Lord's work. We seek it above; it is there ready to descend in its fullness, for it is in Christ.
Paul seems to see "what we are released from" under two headings given in Col.2:8: hollow philosophy, or a self-made mental program that will get us through life, on the one hand; and that troublesome word "rudiments" or "principles" or "earth-elements," on the other. Perhaps this latter is more the pattern heathen culture lays down. Today it would be perhaps: "You can't let people walk over you," or "You have to fight for your rung on the ladder," or "The one who dies with the most toys is of course a winner in the game of life." For the Colossians it would be tied up with physical idols and their rites. But it is then as it is now, life lived without holding fast to Christ the head of the body the church, who is source of all life and safety. When we turn to the risen Lord our whole former outlook crumbles like a sand castle in the big wave.
Probably the empty philosophy and elemental principles are pretty much the record nailed to the cross that was against us (Col. 2:14) and the rulers and authorities disarmed by Christ's triumph. Christ is Lord, and has swept away all that has held us bowed and oppressed, fearful and threatened. We are released from using earthly impermanent handles to hold on to God. There are no handles! Our life is over there with God — imperishable, safe.
But that does not mean we need no warnings. Col.2:8 has, "See that no one takes you captive." The Greek word "take captive", (sylalogue) may be a pun on a similar sounding word "synagogue." See that the synagogue doesn't sylagogue you, take you captive, with its precepts. Keep in mind how totally Christ has changed you and all that he means for you, he who is fullness. But when you get down to speaking and acting now, then make sure the old is really dead and that the new is what is coming to the fore. Remember the old hard times are over. The time of "having arrived" is here, releasing us from the old drudgery.
And then we move into one of Paul's major themes. I died on the cross with my savior and head; I rose from the cave with the stone in front with him too. This rising puts a lot of stuff into the grave and calls me to expect to be drawn personally into the Easter miracle. Everything I might use and work with, everything around me is used up, perishes, disappears. I DON'T. I even see my body in a different light, my interpersonal contacts, my social involvement as husband, wife, child, employer. We are part of a new society, a heavenly Kingdom, a permanent creation of holiness, justice and peace.
It tears us apart to see the world's terrible violence, the lack of compassion and mutual understanding. It tears us apart to hear the bitter words thrown out at one another by Palestinians and Jews, Hindus and Muslims, whites and people of color. It is the old drudgery and anxiety. It is not what the church sees with her eyes fixed on what is above! It makes us tremble to see magazines and TV shows promoting greed and pride. This is what makes life rich, they tell us: multiple sex partners, fancy clothes, power, speed. Video games and lotteries and entertainment, none of it is selling true life and freedom but the same old stuff that has been the death of the world for ages.
Paul was onto something in his warnings. He knew that the life abundant and lived with Christ in God would be despised by the world that perishes. Haven't we seen in our day what persuasive cult leaders can do to people that desperately want to be busy putting a life together with what perishes. How many answers are not constantly offered to us every day in our modern world of instant communication. And how often we ask ourselves, too, is Christ really all? Will he really have life for ME when he comes? Don't I want and need this stuff around me that everybody else seems to think is IT? They promise me peace of mind, comfort, thrills. Don't I need any of that?
The message is, you are different. You look elsewhere for the answers — up above, which is in a sense back, back to the death, back to the resurrection of your Head, back to all you have heard and believed about his work, his person. He is alive. Life is his gift. It has been given. It is safe with him. Live toward his return a life like his in his reliance on God's way and God's promise. And at his return there it will be for you, for your body and spirit, LIFE — life, holy and true. They say sometimes that Christians are prepared to suffer in this life because they are looking for pie in the sky. It is all tomorrow. Christians know they are able to endure hardship now because life came with all its joys long ago, one Sunday morning when Jesus rose. By faith I connect with the life of my Lord and Head and enjoy already by faith that wonder that comes to me one day when Jesus comes.
Proposed Order of Service
Call to Worship: I Peter 1:3-5
Assurance of pardon
Law of God
Prayer for illumination
Scripture: Isaiah 28:11-19
Colossians 2:8-10, 2:18-3:5
Sermon: "Release from Things Perishable"
Hymn 118:1, 4, 5